"Lemme guess - it's a fish?"
He nipped the tip of her ear, which always gave her shivers. "Get your gear on and meet me outside. The weather's nice."
The surprise was a burlap sack filled with snow, hanging from a limb.
"Gee, Cadeon. I didn't get you anything."
"It's for sword practice."
She collected his sword with a long-suffering sigh, though she secretly enjoyed this training.
As he cleaned his catch, he instructed her. "Thrust, parry, counterthrust, twisting block, strike. Nice. That's it, halfling."
Even in the dry, arctic air, she was working up a sweat. Her sparring was improving. He'd even said that she was better than some warriors he'd faced on the battlefield.
Holly didn't know if that was true, but she knew she wasn't laughable anymore.
"Underhanded sword fighting techniques," he said. "Give me two."
As she continued working on slashing attacks, she said, "Obscure my enemy's vision by throwing something like my jacket over his face or sand in his eyes. And second, I could wound my opponent's advancing leg."
"To take blood any way I can - because blood equals strength."
"Very good. Here's a new one. Sometimes you can take a hit in order to see what your opponent's got, or to let them think you're weak," he continued. "They'll get overconfident, 'specially with a tiny chit like yourself."
"Or you can fake an injury. Like dragging your leg to lull a predator. So you give a little to get a lot."
She froze, her mind whirring. "Oh, my God, that's it!"
"My code - how to identify foes from friendlies. Give a little! In quantum cryptography no measurement or detection can be done to a two-party dialogue without disturbing the system, thereby giving the outsider away...."
"If you know the hacker's there, you let him in! You let him take information! He'll get more aggressive, then come with BFC, and you shut them all down. You don't have to have an unbreakable code. You just have to infect your own data, designing it so that when it leaves your system's environment, it can't survive. It will wipe itself out, along with everything around it."
"Go!" he ordered. "Stop gabbing and get it into your computer then."
With a laugh she ran for her laptop.
"But remember," he called, "clearly, sex helps math. Ergo..."
Later that night, they lay bundled up in the small bed together. Running her fingers up and down his chest, she said, "You're dragging your feet to get to Groot's."
"I was rushing for your sake before. We've got days before the full moon deadline. And it'll only take a day of hard driving to get there. Now that you want to stay a Valkyrie, we have time."
"Then talk to me. Tell me more about yourself, such as why you would think you'd lost your brother's crown."
He liked how she worded that - as if she didn't believe it. "I was supposed to go to Tornin, Rothkalina's capital, to stand as head of state until Rydstrom returned from war with the Vampire Horde. I didn't. I was content with my foster family, and they needed me."
"That's why you got blamed?" she asked in disbelief.
"Omort saw this as a sign of weakness and attacked." Cade had tried to shed the guilt, telling himself that there had been a thousand factors in play. Yet over these long years, he continually saw examples of catastrophes caused by the smallest choice or action.
"Wait, you said your foster family? Did you have foster brothers and sisters?"
"I did." He swallowed. "But they were all murdered by Omort's army."
"Oh, God, Cadeon, I'm so sorry."
"Revenants attacked our farmstead."
"I read about them. A sorcerer reanimates a corpse, raising it from the dead, right?"
He nodded. "Since the creature's already dead, it can't be killed."
"How do you fight them?"
"Only when you kill the sorcerer can they be destroyed. Which is a problem since Omort can't be killed by beheading or unnatural heat."
She asked, "Do you blame yourself for your foster family's deaths as well?"
He gave her a grim nod.
Her eyes were sad when she said, "You've been carrying around all this guilt for nine hundred years? What about the saying time heals all wounds?"
He met her gaze. "That one's a lie."
"I want to fight," he told Rök after she'd fallen asleep. "Get mobilized."
"Are you sure? Think of how many ways this attack can get botched up. You'd be risking your brother's life and your kingdom's freedom for a woman."
"Not just a woman. My woman." He'd realized tonight that if Holly got hurt on his watch, then he would have done the same thing he'd blamed himself for a thousand times - failing his own.
"Give me one more night," Rök said. "We can get to your coordinates in fourteen hours if we have to."
Continue to search for the mortal, or go forward? "No, we're out of time," Cade said. "I can't chance it. We're going to war."
After he hung up, Cade joined Holly in bed once more, gazing down at her, sleeping peacefully.
What was going on in that incredible mind of hers as she turned to him so trustingly? Was she dreaming about warrior codes and formulas?
Could she be dreaming about him?
Holly slept deeply, assured he would keep her safe. Stroking the backs of his claws over her arm, he murmured, "I'm going to fight for you."
"What the hell do you mean, can't get up here?" Cade bellowed into the phone. The deal expired tomorrow. "You're f**king mercenaries; I'm ready to go to war."
"The ice road is completely blown out," Rök said, having to yell over what sounded like gusting wind. "That's the only way from here to there."
"What about heading west, then coming up north?" Cade paced in the snow, winding around spruce trees.
"We could, but we'd never make it in time."
"Trace the distance - "
"We can only trace as far as we can see, which is about two feet right now," Rök said. Cade heard a door slam, and then the background noise dimmed. "The snow drifts have killed visibility. And I've already checked on a chopper. It'd take a day just to get one up here."
Cade punched a tree.
"I'm sorry, friend, but you're on your own. You've got to take your female to Groot to get that sword. You don't have a choice."